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Afghan Ambivalence

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

WASHINGTON -- Four years ago, when then-Sen. Barack Obama was campaigning for president, he said of Afghanistan: This is "a war that we have to win." He also claimed, "The Afghan people must know that our commitment to their future is enduring because the security of Afghanistan and the United States is shared." But after three years of Obama's being commander in chief, it ought to be clear that he never really believed his own campaign rhetoric. Now, in the aftermath of recent setbacks, his words are further evidence of presidential ambivalence and uncertainty. None of this bodes well for those who hope for a positive outcome in the shadows of the Hindu Kush.

This week, after a U.S. soldier allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians in Panjwai, a hamlet in Kandahar province, Obama appropriately promised to "make sure that anybody who was involved is held fully accountable with the full force of the law." Though Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reiterated this commitment during a long-planned but unannounced two-day visit to Afghanistan, other unanticipated events -- a reality in all wars -- clouded the message.

Even before Panetta arrived, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was demanding that U.S. and NATO troops cease combat operations in populated areas and be confined to major bases. Then, as Panetta's aircraft approached Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province, an Afghan national crashed a commandeered pickup truck, which burst into flames just off the base runway. By the time Panetta arrived at a meeting with American, British and Afghan personnel, U.S. Marines and British troops that mustered for a "meet and greet" with the secretary had been ordered to remove their weapons from the site.

Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters that the unprecedented order to disarm was "unrelated" to the runway incident. But other officials, speaking on background, said the decision was prompted by "an abundance of caution" after six Americans were murdered last month by Afghan personnel. Yet another story in widespread circulation attributed the order to "fairness" for Afghan troops, who are "not allowed to carry weapons in the presence of senior U.S. officials." Whatever the truth, the order quickly became a public relations nightmare -- and yet another distraction in shoring up public support for those who are fighting this long and difficult war. For that, Obama has no one to blame but himself.

Ever since he decided to provide fewer "surge troops" than requested by his hand-picked battlefield commander and announced an arbitrary "timetable for withdrawal" during a speech in December 2009, the president's rhetoric has been devoid of words about "winning," "defeating the Taliban" or even "peace and security for the Afghan people." Gone, too, is any attempt at comity with Karzai. And while Obama repeatedly reminds us that "we got Osama bin Laden," his efforts to repair relations with neighboring Pakistan have ground to a halt.

This week, in the aftermath of multiple reversals on the ground, the president reiterated that he still intends to withdraw 23,000 of the 91,000 U.S. troops currently deployed in Afghanistan before our presidential election -- and before the "fighting season" comes to an end. In Kabul, Panetta renewed the administration's commitment to "bringing home" all of the remaining 68,000 U.S. troops by 2014.

Taliban leaders immediately announced that they were suspending long-awaited "peace and reconciliation talks" in Qatar because of the "shaky, erratic and vague standpoint of the Americans." What they didn't say is what everyone already knows: The O-Team is getting out of Afghanistan no matter what's happening on the battlefield. All the Taliban have to do is wait until we're gone.

Obama still claims he is "confident that we can continue the work of meeting our objectives" and "accomplish the mission" while implementing his "exit strategy." But then he says his goal is to "responsibly wind down this war" and "bring our troops home." This isn't a "strategy," and it's not a valid reason to send young Americans into harm's way in one of the most difficult and dangerous places on earth. The commander in chief we hired nearly four years ago still hasn't learned that the only "responsible" way to end a war is to win it.

On the day Taliban leaders announced they were pulling out of any further talks, I was visiting Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. While I was there, the mother of a severely wounded Marine said to me, "I hope my son's sacrifice was not in vain." I share her hope. We all should -- even our ambivalent commander in chief.

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